Do Animals Communicate?

By Jerry D. Haight


The other day, Misty, our nine year old Sheltie, wanted up on our bed. She went to the foot, put both front paws on the bed and patted the mattress with her paw, while giving us that Sheltie look. That's the one that translates into "you know what I want, now do it". The first time it happened, we kind of disregarded the instance as coincidence but after the third time, we knew better (you see, sometimes we are kind of slow). As it happened it was a different house, a higher bed and one without a foot stool to help her.  


When camping in Nebraska, Misty came upon a rabbit. She chased the unappreciative cottontail who later returned to our door (our motorhome) and left unmistakable messages in the form of pellets, not once, but several times. Not all bunnies though are so ungrateful, in fact many times they will actually come calling and solicit a chase as was the case the other day when five of the furry creatures came to  our front yard begging Misty for a good chase. Misty chased four of them but didn't see the disappointment on the face of the fifth who felt neglected.


Watching a family of deer in our back yard, we noticed each had a favorite spot to spend a warm Colorado afternoon. The matriarch was sound asleep when one of her yearling offspring decided to play. The youngster boldly walked up to her and nudged her with his foot. She quickly woke up and nipped her child who briefly retreated only to strike again when the coast was clear. This sequence of events happened several times until  the trying to sleep doe, fed up with her rambunctious progeny, got up and thoroughly nipped him in the butt. This seemed to do the trick, but I swear there was a satisfying grin on the creatures face as he went to his favorite spot and took his nap.


Later, on a walk through a nearby golf course, we noticed  two elk facing one another as in conversation. Then, simultaneously, the pair stood on their back legs and began boxing one another with their front hoofs. We watched the event along with a couple of dozen other wapiti for quite some time before the two in the main event simply stopped and resumed grazing the lush lawn of the fairway as if nothing had happened between them.  


At the start of a Sunday afternoon picnic all of the food was laid out on the outdoor table when an uninvited raccoon arrived.  All the people tried the usual shooing, shouting and threatening but the bandit simply would not leave. Even when confronted with a shovel, the hapless creature still remained. I noticed that amid all the turmoil, she kept eying the centerpiece of the picnic table; a big bowel of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then, it became obvious that the poor thing was not rabid as we suspected but simply starving and probable mother to a den of kits. Spotting a large piece of chicken breast, I connected with her as I lightly tossed the chicken to her. She took the food and promptly left.



It is quite unusual for our sheltie to ask to go off-leash. But she did the other day while on an evening walk through a golf course. She caught my eye and held my gaze as she then looked longingly out at the fairway stretched before us and returned her gaze to me. This time, it did not take more than once to get the message. As soon as she was shed of her leash,  she began running as fast as she could, making a large circle around us. When she was spent, she returned to us, tail wagging and a very happy contented look on her face. Indeed she had communicated.  


On our second evening in our summer home in Colorado, getting ready to close our blinds, a huge cow elk had her nose about a foot from the window, gazing into the house wondering about the new people who just moved in. Her name was Gladys and she was the self appointed welcoming committee. Her message was quite clear, She liked people that liked and respected the main inhabitants of the territory, namely  the elk population.


Then, there was the deer that walked up to Phyllis while she was standing on our deck. She too came with the same message. She liked people and let us know that she deemed our backyard as hers, but she would share it with us. Phyllis and she must have chatted for five minutes at a distance of about three feet.


Living with a non-human creature is an adventure like no other and is replete with surprises.  We took our sheltie to "obedience" class and with the aid of cookies, praise and repetition she learned through training the basics of sit, down and stay but the bond formed between us took our communication far beyond the level of training. From the moment she chose us (that is another story), we were her people and she was totally our companion and an integral part of our family. She studied our ways and adapted wonderfully to our lifestyle.    


Where did she learn to stay and comfort us when we were sick? Where did she learn to  greet us with a warm tail wag after a hard day of work?. Where did she learn to wake us up in the middle of the night when she had to go out desperately? And where did she learn to discern our moods, whether playful or somber and to adjust to them? Who taught her to tell us which ear she likes rubbed. And, who taught her to change from the left to the right at the suggestion "other side please"? It was certainly not us.

   

When starting our motorhome, as soon as the key goes into the ignition, she runs quick to dib  the passenger seat. As Phyllis gets to the coveted space, Misty intentionally alters her gaze from Phyllis's eyes to the couch and back, again with that "Sheltie look". It doesn't take much imagination to figure out that dialogue.